Marisa Wright: Mayor Pete, Beto O’Rourke and sexism in politics

Sunday, March 31, 2019 - 11:08am

In a new Emerson poll, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., at 25 and 24 percent respectively, lead the Democratic field among Iowa voters. And moreover, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana (11 percent) surged ahead to third place followed by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., (10 percent) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (9 percent).

These results are unsurprising for two reasons. The first is Buttigieg has absolutely shined recently, especially in a recent CNN Town Hall at SXSW, where he demonstrated his intelligence, thoughtfulness on policy and humility. Yet Harris and Warren have done the same, particularly given they have both recently released large and substantive policy proposals. Harris introduced a national plan to dramatically raise teacher salaries, and Warren proposed plans to make childcare affordable, decrease government corruption, break up large tech corporations and decrease wealth inequality by taxing the extremely wealthy, which leads us to the second reason this is unsurprising.

Despite Harris and Warren’s proposals and demonstrated support in Iowa, positive media coverage has mostly centered on traditional (or, white male) candidates. For example, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, has been presented as a rock star by the media, in spite of the fact that he has made only one trip to Iowa and only vaguely discussed his policy proposals. He has received some skeptical coverage, but not much — it's mostly seen about his unclear platform or his love of standing on bar tops when speaking to voters, which apparently happens a lot.

On a similar note, Buttigieg has also received some particularly fawning coverage. A reporter shared an anecdote in which Buttigieg began abruptly speaking Norwegian to another journalist after learning he was from a Norwegian outlet. After revealing he learned Norwegian because he wanted to read an author whose work has not been translated in English, the anecdote went viral and everyone was charmed.

All of this is totally understandable. I, too, was charmed. Yet, this story is pretty much the extent of attention the media has given him. They have not posed substantive questions about his policies — which in my view, seem to be half-baked adoptions of Warren’s proposals — or seriously assessed his qualifications.

Still, it is important to note the difference of Buttigieg from O’Rourke and the other traditional white and male candidates, which is the historic nature of Buttigieg's campaign as the first openly-gay man ever to run for president. His candidacy will be inspirational for many, especially for the queer community and, in particular, queer youth. It is for this reason that it is unfair to lazily throw him into the same category as the other white male candidates, but it is also important to acknowledge the advantages his gender and race give him.

The fact that these personal stories are enough to push him ahead in the polls demonstrates a broader problem in how the electorate weighs personality much more than experience, policy and capability. Still, this cannot be separated from the sexism at play in determining who we are charmed by and for whom we have disdain. And the media plays an important role in who is considered likable and who is not.

People have a propensity to humanize those who look like them over those who do not by seeing themselves — their hopes, insecurities, desires, downfalls — in them. When a primarily young, white and male press corps covers the primary and general election, it is easy to see why more empathy and adoration is given to the white male candidates, in addition to the fact that 44 of 45 American presidents have been white males.

Nonetheless, I was born and raised in Indiana, so I have known about and liked Buttigieg a lot longer than he has been on the national scene. In my view, Buttigieg is quite smart, genuine and passionate. After a recent interview on “Pod Save America,” he has even climbed higher on my list of favorite 2020 candidates.

Still, it is important to critique the fawning media coverage of O’Rourke and Buttigieg that celebrates personality while ignoring important policy platforms presented by female candidates, because media coverage shapes elections and how people think about candidates.

To be clear, the problem is with the media coverage and how it has subsequently affected voters. Pointing out the sexism at play for women in politics, especially when running for president, is not meant to attack male candidates or dissuade voters from supporting them. Even as I grow more and more frustrated at the sexism in this primary, I do not blame the candidates themselves for sexist media coverage or biased voters.

Calling out sexism — or in some cases, racism and homophobia— is meant to create an equal playing field where voters are free to support their prefered candidate without social biases creating unfair advantages. Making sexism visible to unsuspecting voters and journalists only calls on them to consider how their own biases shape who they view as electable, likable and presidential.

Marisa Wright can be reached at marisadw@umich.edu.